Top 10 Tips for Choosing a Postgraduate Course

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by Neil Harris

Every year people decide to embark on a course of postgraduate study. They do it for many reasons including:

  • Seeking an academic challenge
  • To increase their knowledge, professional expertise and skills
  • To develop research skills (PhD and MRes courses)
  • To gain a qualification that will progress their career
  • To increase their chance of employment in a chosen field
  • To experience life in a different country at a university abroad

In a recession, when jobs are difficult to acquire, more students tend to stay in university to complete postgraduate studies. There are thousands of courses to choose between and many seem to be very similar with almost identical titles. So how do you choose? Here are our top tips for choosing the right course for you.

1. Decide what you want and why

Ask yourself what kind of course you want and what you expect to get out of it. PhDs give you professionalism in research. Many Masters and diploma courses are linked to specific careers. Some, such as a Master's in marketing or petroleum geology, may increase your employment potential in a particular career. Other courses, including the Bar Vocational Course and the Postgraduate Certificate in Education, are essential entry points into becoming a barrister or teacher. Research the courses that relate to your needs and try to discover which will deliver your expectations. Ask as many people as possible about the course, not just those who are selling the course and need participants. Seek out people who did the course previously or unbiased advisers in the university careers service.

2. Does the course provide it?

Always read the prospectus in detail. Many courses have a core of compulsory subjects plus options or electives. Will it definitely be possible to study the options or elective you want? Check this out because on some courses if insufficient students choose a particular option it can be closed. Compare the curriculum of one course with that of another course that claims, or through its title appears, to cover the same subjects. Does one seem to meet your needs better than the other?

3. Will you qualify as a professional?

If you are going to study in order to become a qualified professional check that the course is recognised by the relevant professional body. If it is not recognised then this is not the qualification for you. Some professional bodies, such as the Law Society, validate courses and may even grade them ‘Excellent' or ‘Satisfactory'. A Master's in law will not qualify you as a lawyer but the Legal Practice Course will. Marketing professionals usually prefer people with strong commercial experience to those with academic qualifications in marketing so don't expect a Master's in Marketing to be vastly more valuable than work in the sales team.

4. What happened to previous students?

Investigate what happened to people who have completed the course. Just because a course is called ‘Journalism' or ‘Forensic Science', for example, it does not necessarily follow that the majority of its graduates actually make a career in those areas. The admissions tutor may paint a rosy picture, telling you how their best graduates got into fantastic jobs. However, each university's careers service does annual research into what happens to students from all their university's courses for the Higher Education Statistics Agency and they hold detailed information on the careers that graduates from each course enter. Only a quarter of those taking the Bar Vocational Course, for example, become practising barristers in chambers. The web site gives some information on employability.

5. How is the department rated?

Check how the department is rated and its professionalism compares with other university departments offering the same course. A nation-wide research assessment exercise - the exercise that measures the quality of an institution's research - was completed very recently. A department that is rated 4* is world renowned for its research and this generally rubs off into its teaching, especially of postgraduate courses. You can check this on University departments are also rated for teaching quality. If you intend to study a taught course you can investigate the quality of teaching through the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

6. Small and intimate, or big is best?

Find out approximately how many students will be on the course. Clearly, if it is 100+ there is less opportunity to discuss directly what is said by lecturers than if it is 20 or so. The social aspects of the course will be different if the group is a large one. Which do you prefer?

7. Apply early

While many courses still have vacancies almost up to the start date the most popular ones fill up fast. You will need to apply early if it is a popular course, probably before the Christmas of the year before you want to commence a course (assuming the course begins the following October).

8. Look out for grants and bursaries

Universities often have a few bursaries to offer. The university offers some of these while others may be specifically linked to your department of study. Ask the university registry for details. The ‘Grants Register' and ‘The Directory of Grant Making Trusts' also detail trusts that may offer help.

9. Paying the fees

Look up the fees and discover when and how they must be paid. Universities with very similar courses do not necessarily have the same fees or similar payment structures. At some universities fees are paid up front, others ask for two instalments and some let you pay each time you start a module. If the course is part-time and your employer will benefit from your new-found knowledge consider asking them to sponsor you by paying all or a proportion of the fees.

10. Home or away?

Accommodation costs vary. You can often get a guide to these on the website. Costs are much higher in London, for example, than in Yorkshire. Living at home with family is the cheapest option but then you could miss much of the student experience. If you're a mature student this may not matter but if you've never experienced living closely with other students it's an experience not to be missed.

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